Have you heard the one about the English tourist entering a Welsh pub, only for the unwelcoming locals to switch immediately from English to the native gibberish, presumably for the sole purpose of excluding the newcomer?
You may even be convinced that you have experienced something similar yourself. It is, however, an urban myth with unpleasant implications. Not only does it not happen, it wouldn’t make sense even if it ever did. The people who are speaking Welsh after the stranger came in were already doing so long beforehand.
Obviously, if you consider yourself a victim of this alleged phenomenon, you might not be too impressed with what you’ve just read. Please be assured, however, that the intention here is not to call you a liar. It is, rather, an attempt to rectify a misunderstanding. Quite a few things could have happened to cause the wrong impression and give rise to this strange piece of apocrypha.
Casual spoken Welsh often includes a lot of English borrowings, even when perfectly fine Welsh words are available. Catching a string of these may lead the listener to assume they’re hearing English initially. This could well be amplified by the fact that it can take our senses a few seconds to attune to new surroundings. Upon entering such a room, our ears scan quickly (perhaps desperately) for familiar sounds amongst the hubbub. For an English-speaker, this obviously means English (or English-sounding) words. We can now see how they could catch one or two of those familiar sounds at first, and then, once the senses settle and enable them to listen more carefully, realise that they no longer understand anything. It’s possible to imagine how they may conclude that a complete and deliberate language switch has occurred. It hasn’t.
To confuse things further, it’s common for groups of friends to consist of both Welsh- and English-speakers, and in such cases it’s only natural that the language spoken switches back and forth constantly, depending on whom is speaking to whom. Bear in mind that such a group need only consist of one English-speaker for this to be true. My friends and I are probably fine examples of this phenomenon, since my wife is English; she can understand a fair amount of Welsh but she’s not (yet) fluent. This is an example of a well-known phenomenon known as code-switching and it, too, could lead a stranger (albeit, perhaps, a rather self-centred one!) to conclude that they are the reason for any change they may have heard.
If you still think that these possible explanations seem rather implausible, consider what would need to be true in order for the pub story really to be correct. Is it possible, for example, that the language could have survived so well in the first place were it used only so sparingly? Use it or lose it, as they say. The myth is all the more incoherent when you consider that the type of unwelcoming Welshie who’s presumably at fault has to be one of those insular nationalists who’s supposed to be so hostile to all things English. The obvious question: why would they, of all people, use the (apparently) hated language of the evil conqueror in the first place?
Note also that the visitor in the story claims to be able to tell, with confidence, what language was being spoken long before they even entered the premises. This must mean that they possess paranormal powers, in which case they should be too busy getting rich on television to waste time propagating unpleasant urban legends on the internet. It also works the other way, of course: how precisely are the locals, assuming that they even noticed the grand entrance, supposed to know that the newcomer in their midst is bereft of Welsh? Was he wearing a big fluorescent “English Only” badge?
Perhaps the assumption here is that there are so few Welsh-speakers that we all know each other personally, and so we can readily identify an “outsider”. While it’s true that the classic six-degrees-of-separation game is probably more like two-or-three-degrees in Welsh-speaking Wales, by no stretch of the imagination does that mean that we all know each other directly. There are over half a million of us, after all. Were we really trying to scare off English-speakers, we would need quite a bit more to go on than a mere face.
Note also that this myth assumes an automatic right to eavesdrop. This probably ties in with another similar complaint about Welsh, namely that it is impolite to speak it in the presence of people who don’t understand it. This one at least is not a myth, in the sense that, well, it does happen. It isn’t actually rude either (in the vast majority of circumstances at least), but that’s a matter for a separate article.
It’s important to note the malicious assumptions underpinning this whole silly story. It must be emphasised immediately that these assumptions are not necessarily harboured by everyone who repeats it. Many are simply duped. Nevertheless, the story has a lot of mendacious implications and it will be helpful to dissect them to understand why some people appear so eager to spread it. It seeks to create the false impression that Welsh isn’t really a normal medium of everyday life (it is) and that we all just “use English anyway” when no one else is around. Perhaps it just shows a refusal or an inability to believe that there are parts of the British mainland, much less than a hundred miles from the border (and in some places less than twenty) where the community language isn’t English.
Whatever the reason, its purpose is obviously to undermine the language. It suggests that it is only ever spoken with sneaky ulterior motives, and pretty much tries to turn Welsh as a whole into something sinister. At the same time, it portrays its speakers as rude, suspicious and hostile bigots. We really aren’t. Honest. Well, apart from a handful of idiots, probably, but what cross-section of society doesn’t include its share of those?
Rest assured that Welsh-speakers use Welsh in every aspect of their lives. When they speak it in the pub or wherever they may be, they’re discussing sport, the news, or what they’ve seen on television, or the previous weekend’s drunken antics, or they’re making polite enquiries about the well-being of each other’s families. You get the idea. Normal people discussing normal things, in their normal language. Fomenting distrust of Welsh-speakers is an ancient and divisive political tactic in Wales, and this myth is very much a part of that grim tradition. Please don’t be fooled.
Update (in response to some of the comments BTL):